You’ve mentioned that characters faking disabilities can feed into the ableist misconception that disabled people are likely to just be faking for benefits. Is it less ableist if an abled character impersonates a specific other character who happens to have a disability? The example I’m thinking of is Harry Potter, in which an able-bodied Death Eater impersonates the one-eyed amputee Alastor Moody–though in that case, said Death Eater was genuinely missing an eye and leg while undercover, since he used a potion to transform his body to resemble Moody’s.
Thank you for your question!
Because this is a complex topic, I’m going to start with the three big reasons why it is harmful for a non-disabled character to fake a disability. The first, and biggest, reason is the myth that faking a disability is common. Every time that a non-disabled character fakes a disability, it reinforces this myth. In the real world, this causes a disturbing number of non-disabled people to attempt to seek out and punish “fakers.” Because faking a disability is actually rare, this attempt results in the harassment of disabled people who don’t match stereotypes, such as people with invisible disabilities and ambulatory wheelchair users.
The second reason is that successfully faking a disability includes reinforcing ableist stereotypes. For example, in order for a character to fake a disability without being caught by one of those people who are so zealously seeking out “fakers,” they need to portray a stereotypical depiction of disability. Because the character is actually non-disabled, there isn’t anything they can do to challenge these stereotypes. Revealing that a pathetic and helpless disabled character is actually a non-disabled villain in disguise does nothing to show that disabled people aren’t actually pathetic and helpless. Even when a non-disabled character deliberately manipulates ableist stereotypes, they aren’t doing anything to show that those stereotypes are untrue, so they end up reinforcing them.
The third reason is that portraying faking a disability as easy erases the way that ableism impacts the lives of disabled people. This is based on the idea that all of the barriers in a disabled person’s life come from their disability, so a non-disabled person faking their disability won’t have problems. This isn’t true. A non-disabled person using a wheelchair is still going to encounter inaccessible buildings. If they are unfortunate enough to be in a place with a lot of hills and unnecessary staircases, like the University of Washington campus, finding a wheelchair accessible route to their destination will be difficult and time-consuming. Similarly, a non-disabled person pretending to be neurodivergent is going to run into stigma and discrimination that they aren’t used to dealing with. Navigating the world as people with disabilities requires us to develop skills that non-disabled people don’t have. A non-disabled person faking a disability should immediately run into problems because they lack these skills.
Having an non-disabled person pretend to be a specific disabled person does address some of these problems, but not all of them. As long as the person they are imitating isn’t an ableist stereotype, then they won’t be either, but this is still portraying faking a disability as easy and common. Their lack of skill at living with a disability should show, especially to other disabled people. No matter how good they are at planning, their lack of lived experience should result in them encountering unexpected accessibility barriers. As a disabled person who is good at planning, I still frequently run into unexpected barriers when I do something new, and I have lived experience to draw on.
The example you bring up, where Barty Crouch Jr. imitates Alastor Moody in Harry Potter, is a bit different. It involves a physical transformation where Crouch physically becomes Moody, including his physical disabilities. While that magic lasts, Crouch is physically disabled and in need of the tools and accommodations that the real Moody uses. This is a big improvement in representation. However, the skills that come from the lived experience of being disabled are still being erased.
Getting used to a prosthetic isn’t trivial, and an eye that swivels all the way around to look through the back of your own head, as Moody’s magical eye does, must be disorienting at first. Yet Crouch successfully imitates Moody immediately after capturing him, because he is able to pass the noise he made fighting Moody off as a false alarm. Granted, this was with people who don’t know Moody super well, but it still implies an ability to put on Moody’s prosthetics and instantly be competent using them.
However, if you do want to make a story that includes someone impersonating a disabled character, there is an option that avoids all of these problems: have a disabled character impersonate them. If they have the same disability, then no faking is needed. A different disability where the character uses similar skills and adaptive equipment could also work, if it is done carefully. I do suggest erring on the side of caution when doing this, as it is important to be clear that different disabilities are distinct from each other. Magical transformations do help impersonations feel more believable, but this is because most fictional impersonations wouldn’t work without magic or technology. Finally, please keep in mind that each person’s experience of disability is unique, so even when characters have the same disability, imitating another person will still have challenges.
I hope that this answers your question, and I wish you the best of luck with your storytelling project!
—Fay from Writing Alchemy